Great Escapes

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Cycling in Belgium

One of the best ways to explore Belgium is on two wheels. The flat landscapes, superb canal pathways and close proximity of major attractions ensure that cycling during your holidays in Belgium is an ideal way of discovering the country. This is exactly what I did during my latest trip to Belgium where I biked between the beautiful cities of Ypres, Ghent and Bruges.

Cycling in Ypres

The first city of my five-day cycling tour of Belgium was Ypres, a beautiful old city built around a grand central marketplace adorned with splendid buildings. Ypres is perhaps best known as the location for intense fighting during WWI, with countless tourists visiting the city every year to embark on battlefield tours.

Ypres 2

Cycling along the canal into the city saw me pass a number of war cemeteries and memorials, including the Essex Farm Cemetery where I encountered a memorial to John McCrae, the writer of the iconic In Flanders Field poem. The most poignant landmark for reflection is the beautiful Menin Gate. Every day at 8pm a service is held beneath the gate in memory of the fallen WWI soldiers whose graves remain unknown. The Last Post Ceremony, as it is called, was played out for the 30,000th time in July 2015.

Beyond the scars of war, the city was a thrilling place to cycle. As I bobbed around on the cobbles I absorbed the beauty of the magnificent Cloth Hall, stopping for refreshment in the form of a Belgian beer in the marketplace. The following day I began my cycle to Ghent.

Ieper: De lakenhallen Foto Tijl Capoen

Image credit: Tiji Capoen

Cycling in Ghent

To the northeast of Ypres is the marvellous medieval city of Ghent. Admittedly the ride from Ypres to Ghent takes a long time, with the distance between the two cities around 90 km, but I encountered some great stops along the way. Kortrijk and Waregem presented pleasant locations for me to take a break every couple of hours, and these could easily be incorporated into a three-day ride to Ghent. The ride didn’t feel long, hugging a great network of canal cycle paths, ensuring that avoiding traffic was never a factor of the ride.

Royalty Free

The city of Ghent itself was equally appealing. I stayed just outside of the city’s Begijnhof, and it was wonderful cycling around these practically-deserted streets and admiring the medieval architecture. I followed the network of canals next, discovering some fantastic views throughout the city, one of the best coming in the form of the Gravensteen castle.

It is the city centre that forms the jewel in Ghent’s crown however. Home to an unrivalled range of landmarks and attractions, including the striking Saint Nicholas’ Church and the towering Belfry from where you can enjoy unprecedented views of the city.

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Image credit: Emi Cristea

Cycling in Bruges

The ride from Ghent to Bruges is one of the simplest in the country, following a straight river pathway west along flat countryside for around 45km. The only hitch is the wind, with notorious headwinds slowing the progress of those cycling from east to west. The prize at the end of the ride makes it worth it though, with incredible Bruges awaiting you with its wonderfully-preserved old town.

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Image credit: Jan Darthet

The core of Bruges’ old town has little traffic, making cycling one of the best ways to explore the highlights of the city. I started in the Grote Markt, grabbing a beer in a bar set on the outside ring which allowed me to sit and admire the stunning Belfry as it chimed away in the sunshine. The neighbouring square is called Burg Square, home to the grand City Hall and the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and was another highlight of my visit. The Church of Our Lady and its grounds were one of the final places I cycled to (with a tourist agenda), before spending the rest of the day sampling some more of the city’s highlights.

These mainly consisted of chocolate, beer and waffles, serving as my fuel for the next day’s cycle into the Netherlands. There are a range of great chocolate shops and beer cafes, but I opted for Dumon Chocolatier and ‘t Brugs Beertje respectively. I also took a tour of the city’s brewery, De Halve Maan, and sipped a few of their beers in the brewery bar. It’s safe to say I was wheeling my bicycle back to my accommodation that evening.

Bruges 1

Image credit: Jiang_liu

Even if you’re not keen on cycling, you can visit all of these wonderful destinations with Great Escapes, as well as several other alluring destinations across Europe.

If you’d like to read more about my European cycling adventure, you can find further details and stories on my blog.

Graslei, Ghent, Belgium


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The Weekend Hop on Hop off Water Tram in Ghent

This year there’s a new way to explore Ghent on the hop-on-hop-off water tram operating every Saturday and Sunday until November. It’s a great way to visit the city’s attractions.

Water Tram Stops in Ghent

Ghent Gravensteen -

above: Ghent Gravensteen – “The Castle of the Counts” by  Simon Q, Creative Commons

Running from 11 am to 6.15 pm, the tram has  six stops including:

Castle of the Counts

The Gravensteen (meaning Castle of the Counts in Dutch) dates back to the Middle Ages and was the setting for some of the scens in the BBC drama series “The White Queen”. Built in 1180 by count Philip of Alsace, the present castle is on the site of a previous wooden castle believed to have been built in the ninth century. The castle served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders until they abandoned it in the 14th century. It was later used as a courthouse, a prison and eventually fell into ruin. Houses were built against the walls and in the inner the courtyard. Walls were dismantled so that the stones could be used for new constructions. In 1885 the city of Ghent bought the castle, saving it from demolition and started work on its renovation. The newly built houses were removed and the walls and dungeon were restored to their original condition. The castle can now be explored once again and inside is a museum with various torture devices, including a guillotine, that were once used in the city.

Graslei-Korenlei

This medieval port, is the thriving heart of the city. Lined with elegant historic buildings, it is a meeting place where young and old, local and visitor alike, gather in the cafés and by the water’s edge. Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

above:  Graslei by VisitGent, Creative Commons

St Peter’s Abbey

Home to the Centre for Art and Culture St. Peter’s Abbey, this is a wonderful international exhibition space while the gardens and vineyards form a green oasis in the city.

St Bavo’s Cathedral

St. Bavo’s Cathedral is home an impressive number of art treasures: the baroque high altar in red, black and white marble, the rococo oak, gilt and marble pulpit, a major work by Rubens, the ‘Calvary Triptych’,  tombs of the Ghent bishops, and so much more. The most impressive and world famous of them all though is the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck around 1432. Discover more at Visit Gent.

Veldstraat

Ghent central pedestrian shopping street has a number of splendid, authentic façades and numerous inviting shops. A day pass costs €12.50 and a two-day pass costs €15.00. When you buy a CityCard Gent, the day pass is included in the purchase price.


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Celebrating at Europe’s biggest free festival in Ghent

When we told people we were going to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary in Ghent we got very mixed responses: from those that had been “It’s amazing you’ll love it!”; from those that hadn’t “Where?”. It’s true that Ghent isn’t on most people’s bucket lists of must see places, but it should be. We had a fantastic three nights in this beautiful city, made even better by our trip coinciding with annual The Ghent Festivities.

Festival by night

We’d originally planned to return to Dubrovnik for a few days where we’d honeymooned ten years earlier during Dubrovnik’s own Summer Festival, however the infrequency of flights and the cost of the hotel meant this really wasn’t practical. We only wanted to leave the children for two or three nights and so we had to consider other options. Whilst at work (for Great Escapes) I’d seen a free third night offer at the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof in Ghent – the hotel looked ideal with nice rooms, a spa and champagne bar. Plus, I remembered reading about the ten-day festival that takes place each July. When I suggested it to my husband I got a blank look and the same response “where?” but when I mentioned Belgian beer and mussels he was convinced.

mussels

As it turned out I’m glad we chose Ghent over Dubrovnik, the city was equally beautiful, the hotel just as nice and the festival was a great addition.

 

We travelled by Eurostar in the Standard Premier cabin which meant we got food and drinks on board and it’s great value as the ticket entitles you to onward travel to any Belgian city. Ghent (Gent) was only one stop on from the Eurostar terminal in Brussels and once we’d figured out which platform we needed to get to (it can be a little confusing) we managed to get straight on a train and were in Ghent in around 25 minutes. One tip – the trains often refer to the station’s name rather than the city itself. We were panicking slightly after our train departed and the announcements failed to mention Ghent in the list of destinations – listen out for Sint Pieters.

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The hotel itself is quite grand with an impressive entrance hall and reception area. Whilst checking in we realised we’d made a good choice – a similar standard of hotel in Paris or London would have cost a fortune. It was the first time we’d left the children (now 9 & 6) for this long and we wanted a little luxury.

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After unpacking we headed out to explore, it was just a couple of minutes’ walk over St Michael’s Bridge to the medieval city. Walking over the bridge provides an impressive first glimpse of the city centre with its gothic towers and medieval buildings – National Geographic Traveler Magazine named Ghent as the most authentic historic city in the world, and Lonely Planet called it “Europe’s best kept secret.” We wanted to discover its secret.

Ghent

 

The Ghent Festivities

Below St Michael’s Bridge is the River Leie and on opposite sides of the river are the Korenlei and Graslei – probably the two most picturesque and most photographed areas of Ghent. Whilst we were there the historic buildings were partly hidden by outdoor bars and stages that had been built on the riverbank and pontoons on the river itself, but for us this only added to the atmosphere. Although I’d read about the festival I never realised quite how big it is – it dominates the city with around 10 stages set up in squares all over Ghent.

POle Pole

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Each day we’d stumble across new areas we hadn’t discovered before and listen to some different genres of music. Most of the bands are Belgian and little known to the UK market but there are some international bands and we saw a Jamaican Jazz Orchestra, a British Blues band, a rather dodgy rock band and Black Elvis amongst many others.  Slade were performing whilst we were there, but luckily we missed them. It’s said to be Europe’s biggest free festival and also incorporates a circus acts, puppetry, comedy and street performers.

Festival from bridge

Exploring with the Ghent City Card

It wasn’t all about the festival though, there’s a lot more to this little city, the centre of which is virtually all pedestrianized. We got a Ghent City Card which costs 30 euros for 48 hours or 35 euros for 72 hours and gives free access to most of the city’s attractions, bus and tram travel and a boat trip. We climbed the Belfry which gives great views of the city but the 365 tiny winding stairs did make me a little nervous, luckily there’s a lift which we took on the way down.

Jo by river

The card also gave us a complimentary 40-minute boat trip with an English-speaking guide. We’d followed a walking tour independently the previous day so had seen much of the city but the boat trip gave a different view from the river and it was useful to have a guide, even if his accent made it a little tricky to understand every word. If you’re travelling with children there are boat trips aimed specifically at families with river monsters, pirates and witches giving the tour. I’ve no idea if these are included with the City Card, I’m just relieved Ben (my husband) and I didn’t end up on one of these by mistake! During our 3 night trip the weather was beautiful – in the late 20s – so we’d headed out early on our last day for the boat trip. Before boarding the boat we were offered a complimentary Belgian beer but as it was only 10am we’d declined. However whilst sat on the boat waiting to depart, the guide came round again confused why we didn’t have our beer. My will power remained, as you can see my husband couldn’t refuse!

Free Beer

best ghent restaurants


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5 Favourite Dining Experiences in Ghent, Belgium

Ghent offers some of Belgium’s finest foodie experiences going way above and beyond many an expectation of fries, waffles and beer. You’ll find all these for sure, and very good they are too, but you’ll also find a plethora of talented chefs, producing some exceptional, if sometimes quirky, sophisticated dining experiences. Here’s our choice of favourites from waffles to fine dining in Ghent.

The House of Eliott

Jan Breydelstraat 36
900 Ghent
09 22 52 128

thehouseofeliott.be
Trip Advisor

Feathers, statues, mannequins and dolls, flowers, hats, dresses and even a handbag under a glass dome – The House of Elliot is crammed full of 1920’s kitsch memorabilia, oozing charm and atmosphere in reputedly the best lobster restaurant in town.  If you opt for the Eliott lobster menu, you’ll get 6  lobster dishes prepared in 6 very different ways. And if one of you party is not a lobster fan, don’t fear, there are plenty of other options to choose from.  A warm welcome awaits you and the service is superb. The memories of your visit to this wonderfully quirky restaurant will stay with you a very long time.

best ghent restaurantstop gent restaurant

Volta

Nieuwe Wandeling 2b
9000 Ghent
09 32 40 500

volta-gent.be
Trip Advisor

Top Ghent restaurants
A ten minute walk from the city centre you’ll find this cool restaurant in a huge converted turbine hall was put on the Ghent foodie map by the chef Olly Ceulenaere one of Belgium’s three “rock n roll chefs” as nicknamed by local press. Olly passed on the baton last year to another talented young Flemish chef  Davy De Pourcq, ensuring that continues to offer a first-rate, if sometimes surprising, dining experience.
Closed Mondays.

De Frietketel

Papegaaistraat 89
9000 Ghent

Trip Advisor

Unlike traditional Belgium fries, which are fried twice in animal fat, at  De Frietketel their renowned fries are freshly cut each day and fried twice in vegetable oil. As the premier fry shop in Ghent it is well worth the ten minute walk from the town’s historic centre and you’ll be rewarded with a huge mound of fries, even if you order a small portion. As is traditional in Belgium, at an extra cost, you may also pick from a wonderful assortment of mainly unpronounceable sauces for dipping including Stoverijsaus, a rich meaty stew and the homemade, spicy mayonnaise, Samurai. They also offer a great variety of veggie burgers as well as several vegan options.
Possibly due to being very popular with locals and students, they only open during the week.

De Vitrine

Brabantdam 134
09 33 62 808 

de-vitrine.be
Trip Advisor

best restaurants Gent

Serving Flemish tapas around a marble counter in a former butcher’s shop, this popular restaurant also has a small dining room out the back which gets fully booked well in advance. They offer fresh and surprising fare at a reasonable price in an unpretentious atmosphere.
Closed Mondays

Max

Goudenleeuwplein 3
900 Ghent
09 22 39 731

Establishment Max
Trip Advisor

best waffle ghent

The home of the Belgium waffle – it was invented right here! Yves and his family have been cooking waffles for six generations in this charming art deco establishment. The perfect waffle should be light, translucent, not at all greasy, traditionally with 20 squares and dusted in powdered sugar but they can also come with whipped cream, chocolate fruit and many other delicious combinations!

top waffle gentbest waffle gent

 

Photos courtesy of Trip Advisor

Bruges Christmas


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Walk into a Winter wonderland and the magic of Belgium’s Christmas markets

Christmas and New Year is a great time to visit Belgium with so many of its most famous cities hosting fabulous markets and celebrations that will warm the heart of even the sternest of Scrooges. The smell of mulled wine, hot chocolate and roasting chestnuts pervades the air, while the distant sound of carols and the sight of thousands of twinkling fairylights, all add to the festive atmosphere.

Antwerp

7th December 2013 – 31st December: Antwerp’s magical Christmas market is held at de Groenplaats, Handschoenmarkt, Grote Markt and Suikerrui. Whether you are looking for Christmas decorations, seasonal produce or simply wish to enjoy the markets charm with a glass or two of mulled wine, you’ll find a vibrant festive atmosphere here.

Belgium Christmas markets, Antwerp

Antwerp

Saturday 7th of December: Opening Celebration.

Saturday 7th of December to Sunday 5th of January 2014: Christmas market and ice skating rink at Steenplein. There will also be a big Ferris wheel at the Cruise Terminal.

Sunday 15th of December, 22nd of December and 29th of December: Shops will be opened on Sunday for Christmas shopping.

New Year’s Eve, Tuesday 31st of December: New Year’s Eve Fireworks at the Schelde.

Bruges

22nd November 2013 – 2nd January 2014: The Christmas market takes place on the Markt Square around the traditional open-air ice rink, with a smaller market located on Simon Stevinplein. Colourful lights illuminate festival stalls crammed with Christmas goodies, where shoppers can browse tables laden with elegantly packaged chocolates and locally made produce. Open: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 10:30 – 22:00 and on Friday and Saturday from 10:30 – 23:00.

Bruges Christmas

Bruges

22nd of November 2013 until the 5th January 2014: Snow & Ice Sculpture Festival at Stationplein. Open 10:00 – 19:00 daily (including Christmas Day & New Years Day)

Bruges ice sculptures

Bruges Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival

Brussels

29th November 2013 to 5th January 2014: ‘Winter Wonderland’, Brussels’s extensive traditional Christmas market, takes place on the Place Sainte Catherine and the Bourse with around 150 exhibitors from all over Europe offering traditional arts and crafts, jewellery, and Belgian chocolates for sale alongside an artificial ice-rink and numerous street artists. In addition to this there’s a multi-coloured Sound and Light show at the Grand Place.

Belgium Christmas markets, Brussels

Brussels

Ghent

6th to 30th December 2014: Ghent welcomes the festive season with a charming Christmas market in Sint-Baafsplein, Klein Turkije and Korenmarkt. Visitors can wander among the 50 wooden huts in search of decorations, candles, cards and gifts, serenaded by a choir. You can also enjoy live jazz, folk and rock performances, as well as Christmas carols.

22 November 2013 to 05 January 2014: A second Christmas market in St Pietersplein with a giant Ferris wheel, a fun fair, food and drink stalls plus an ice-rink.

New Year’s Eve, Tuesday 31st December at midnight: New Year’s Eve Fireworks at Graslei.

Belgium Christmas market, Ghent

Ghent

Leuven

13th to 22nd December: Leuven organises a very accessible and well organised Christmas market, known as the Leuvense Kerstmarkt, set with a fairytale backdrop of the Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein and the Herbert Hooverplein squares, where visitors can stock up on decorations, gifts and other festive items as well as enjoying the tasting stalls.

Leuven at Christmas

Leuven

Ostend

29th November 2013 to 5th January 2014: A covered Christmas market in Wapenplein square with delicious snacks and warming drinks, fabulous decorations and an ice-rink.

Belgium christmas markets, Ostend

Ostend

Ypres

30th November 2013 to 2nd January 2014: The Christmas market in Ypres is growing in reputation and takes place on the Grote Markt in the centre of town each afternoon and all day on Saturday. The Swiss style chalets, together with the popular ice rink, as well as live entertainment, will certainly put you in a festive mood. Open: Tue-Wed-Thu from 17:00 to 19:30, Fri: 15:00 to 22:00, Sat 10:00 to 22:00, Sun from 15:00 to 19:30, closed Mondays

Ypres Christmas market

Ypres

Please note that the above information is correct to the best of our knowledge but details are subject to change and should be checked with the individual organisations concerned before visiting.

Picture postcard from… Ghent, Belgium

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Ghent canal

One of my favourite photographs of Ghent by professional photographer Florelena.

Ghent was labeled Europe’s best kept secret by Lonely Planet and National Geographic Traveler Magazine
listed the city as the most authentic historic city in the world. It’s also known for coming to life after dark!

More shots from Florelena can be found at Florelena.com.